Ben Johnson

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NRLC letter sparks debate among pro-life leaders on how to treat no-exceptions lawmakers

Ben Johnson

WASHINGTON, D.C., September 3, 2013 (LifeSiteNews.com) – A letter from the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) sent to all congressmen urging them to support the federal “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act” (H.R. 1797) has stirred a debate in pro-life circles over the best way to handle pro-life lawmakers who choose not to vote in favor of an incremental bill because they believe it isn’t pro-life enough.

Last week pro-life activist Monica Kelsey, who was conceived in rape, published the text of NRLC’s letter, which said that any legislator who voted against the pain-capable bill, “no matter what justification is offered,” would be considered as having voted “to allow unlimited abortion in the sixth month or later.” 

The letter adds that this is how the vote “will be reported in our scorecard of key right-to-life roll calls of the 113th Congress, and in subsequent communications from National Right to Life to grassroots pro-life citizens in every state.” 

The problem for Kelsey and several other pro-life leaders is that this threat applies not only to pro-abortion lawmakers, but also to legislators such as staunchly pro-life Georgia Reps. Paul Broun and Rob Woodall. Woodall and Broun both voted against the pain-capable bill, which would ban abortion after 20 weeks, due to a last-minute decision by Republican leadership to exclude from protection babies conceived in rape and incest. 

"I have nothing bad to say about any of the people who are working for and volunteering for Right to Life, they are my favorite people on earth!" wrote Kelsey on her blog. But, she said, NRLC’s strategy of marking a vote against an incremental bill by a pro-life legislator opposed to exceptions the same as one by a pro-abortion congressman is “degrading to me and my friends who fight every day to show the value of a child conceived in rape.” 

Dan Becker, president of Georgia RTL, agreed with Kesley, telling LifeSiteNews.com (LSN) that he was “deeply disappointed” when he received word “that our 100 percent pro-life congressmen were being threatened by NRLC with censure if they voted as the majority of Georgians expected them to vote.” Georgia RTL withdrew their endorsement of the pain-capable blil after the rape/incest exceptions were added.

"The folks at NRLC are my friends and I appreciate their work, but their actions were detrimental," said Becker.

In a press release issued on the day the pain-capable bill passed the House of Representatives earlier this summer, NRLC’s Douglas Johnson singled out Congressmen Broun and Woodall as “the only lawmakers who identify themselves as pro-life but who voted against this bill." Johnson said NRLC was “deeply disappointed” by their votes. 

While more than one representative of NRLC did not return multiple calls or e-mails from LifeSiteNews.com seeking comment on the controversy, Pamela Sherstad of Right to Life Michigan, whose group does not support exceptions, told LSN that she didn’t see any problems with NRLC’s letter. 

“The precedent we have set in our state is that we have protected all life, no matter how the conception (came to be),” Sherstad said. But, she said, “As far as national legislation, we do follow the lead of National Right to Life.” 

“It's a relationship, where you have to rely on their expertise.” 

Chris Kurka, president of Alaska Right to Life, a group that will not endorse candidates who allow abortion for rape or incest, also said he did not have any difficulty with NRLC 's letter.  He did say, however, that he understood how the letter might lead to organizational tension with some affiliates. 

“If you go to a state that has great pro-life lawmakers and has achieved some of the goals that National Right to Life has outlined, I think it's problematic to undercut them,” he said. 

“Obviously, we think you can do pro-life incrementalism,” Kurka added. “But compromise should never come at a cost to our principles and our mission. I think there's too many pro-life bills out there that undermine the value of the unborn.” 

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The Alaska affiliate supported the federal pain-capable bill, but had concerns over the rape/incest exception. “The language of our legislation needs to be consistent with our stated position,” Kurka said. Otherwise, “there's no reason for the public to take us seriously.” 

Pro-life activist Rebecca Kiessling of Save the 1, who was conceived in rape, said she believes NRLC’s letter represented the wrong kind of pressure. 

“I know these are good-willed people who hate abortion just as much as I do,” she said. “I disagree on their strategy.” 

“I haven't heard of any such letter being sent to the congressmen who introduced the rape exception. I haven't heard that they were threatened in any way, that they would lose their endorsement.” 

“I realize now that this is why we had the Hyde Amendment with rape exceptions for 20 years,” she said. “This is why our laws are riddled with rape exceptions.” 

Kiessling said that she is worried the pro-life movement has sacrificed principle to maintain its close relationship with the Republican Party, which is increasingly skittish about standing up for children conceived in rape because of Democrats' “war on women” rhetoric.

Congress, for instance, liberalized laws on military bases to allow abortions in the case of rape, a move supported by Sen. John McCain.

Chris Kurka of Alaska Right to Life shared Kiessling’s concerns about the GOP. 

“I have a concern that the establishment of the Republican Party doesn't care about the pro-life cause. I'm concerned they're using the pro-life movement to get elected and do nothing,” Kurka said. “There are too many Republicans who are not serious about this.” 

“We're non-partisan,” Kurka told LSN. “I show no mercy to Republicans.” 

Former Planned Parenthood clinic director turned pro-life leader Abby Johnson also chimed in with questions about NRLC’s letter on her public Facebook page. 

“Since when did a 'scorecard' become more important than doing the right thing?” Johnson wrote. “I thought pro-lifers were in favor of protecting conscience rights...I guess until your conscience goes against theirs.” 

“Thank you, Monica Kelsey, for exposing this,” she wrote. 

Kelsey says she hopes that publishing the letter publicly will provoke a national discussion on the importance of saving 100 percent of the nation's unborn babies.

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